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Pets are popular in Illinois. More than six out of 10 American households have at least one pet. Given that popularity, it is no surprise then that pet custody has become an increasingly common family law issue. In fact, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, pet-custody disputes have made into courtrooms with increasing frequency in recent years.

Sometimes, the dispute is sincere. Both sides view the pet as a member of the family. In other cases, the dispute is strategic. In those instances, one partner knows that the other partner cares deeply about the pet. The one partner will use the other partner’s deep attachment as a bargaining chip during divorce negotiations.

The easiest way to stop a pet from becoming a bargaining chip is through a pre- or post-nuptial agreement. That agreement can spell out exactly what will happen if a relationship does not last, including who gets the pet.

If it is too late for that, and the couple cannot reach an agreement on their own, then Illinoisans may need to have a judge decide for them. In that event, the judge likely will ask three questions: (1) whose pet is it; (2) who cares for the pet; and (3) who will the children live with?

The first question is straightforward. If one partner had the pet before the relationship, they are likely to keep it once the relationship has ended.

The second question is less clear-cut because it can be hard to show who cared more for the pet. Fortunately, the signature on receipts can confirm who bought the pet’s food and supplies. Meanwhile, neighbors can attest who exercised the pet.

Finally, the third question about who has custody of the children is child-centric. Often, it is best for the family pet to reside with the kids.

Illinoisans should think about the answers to these questions before they decide to turn the issue over to a judge. Those answers may help inform whether to take the case forward.

Source: The Huffington Post, “How Are Pets Handled In Divorce?,” Jeff Landers, April 17, 2014